Four ways 'Jim Crow 2.0' is shaping this presidential election
Updated 6:07 AM ET, Sun November 1, 2020
(CNN)On the first and third Monday of each month, Theresa Burroughs traveled to Alabama's Hale County courthouse to register to vote. On each trip, she was met by a group of White men playing dominoes.
One of those men oversaw voter registration in the county. He'd point to a jar of jelly beans on a nearby table and ask Burroughs, "How many black jelly beans are in a jar? How many red ones in there?"
It was the late 1940s, and Burroughs was a Black woman who knew she wasn't welcome at a voting booth in the Jim Crow South. But she was so determined to vote that she kept going to the courthouse every month for two years until she wore the voter registrar down. When he finally handed her a voter registration card, he didn't bother to hide his disgust.
"It was a joy," Burroughs said, recounting her first vote during a 2015 interview with a nonprofit group that collects oral histories. "But the thing about it is, I didn't feel it should have been this hard. I knew it shouldn't have been this hard."
More than 70 years later, it still is hard for many Black people to vote in America -- and the proof can be seen in how this year's presidential election has unfolded, voting rights advocates and historians say.
The jelly beans test never quite went away; it's just evolved into more sophisticated ploys. They include allegedly sabotaging the US Postal Service to delay the delivery of mail-in ballots, limiting sprawling counties in Texas to one ballot drop-box location, and passing stricter voter ID laws to combat allegations of widespread voter fraud, even though those claims have been debunked in court and by academic studies.
Voting-rights advocates say those are just some of the tactics that President Donald Trump, Republican politicians and Republican-appointed judges are employing to prevent Black people -- and other groups who traditionally align with the Democratic Party -- from voting in 2020.
Some of these voter-suppression tactics are so similar to the segregated era of Burroughs' youth that some observers are calling them "Jim Crow 2.0. When it comes to roadblocks to voting, there are at least four unsettling parallels between the Jim Crow era and now.
Laws that prohibit ex-felons from voting
Back then, many segregationists didn't bother with clever tricks to keep Blacks away from the voting booth. Raw terror was their preferred method. They routinely employed beatings, mob violence, and murder to keep Black voters from the polls.
White politicians began attacking Black voting power after the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote in 1870. They transformed the post-slavery-era South into an apartheid state where Blacks were reduced to another form of servitude, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed.
"So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself," King said in a 1957 speech. "I cannot make up my mind -- it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact -- I can only submit to the edict of others."
Southern officials also developed more subtle ploys -- like using the courts -- to keep Blacks from voting.
For one, they passed laws that permanently stripped voting rights from former prisoners -- at the same time that some Southern states did as much as they could to steer Black men to prison.
These states passed a slew of laws that made it easier for authorities to arrest Black residents for minor offenses such as loitering and vagrancy. It was a forerunner of mass incarceration -- the mass criminalization of Blackness that, among other things, reduced Black political power.
And laws aimed at felons are still keeping Black people away from polling stations today, according to a recent report.
An estimated 5.1 million people in the US won't be able to vote in the 2020 election due to a felony conviction, according to a new study from the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group that uses research to push for alternatives to mass incarceration.
Felon disenfranchisement laws are "race-neutral" on their face, but in the United States race is clearly tied to criminal punishment because imprisonment rates of African Americans have consistently exceeded those of Whites, said the authors of another 2003 study, in the American Journal of Sociology.
African Americans represent a disproportionate percentage of felons and are hit harder by such laws -- especially in Southern states. About 1 in 16 African American adults can't vote because of a felony record, according to the Sentencing Project report. That rate is almost 4 times greater than that of non-African Americans.
Laws forcing people to pay to vote
Another common weapon in the Jim Crow voter-suppression toolkit was the "poll tax." Southern states passed laws requiring the payment of a fee to vote. Many Blacks, not long removed from slavery, were too poor to afford the fee. They couldn't exercise a fundamental right simply because they didn't have enough money.
Some critics say Republican lawmakers have created a modern-day poll tax in Florida by passing a "pay to play" approach to voting for ex-felons.
In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which granted convicted felons who complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation, the right to vote -- except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
The Republican controlled-Florida legislature, however, passed a law the following year that required ex-felons to pay all financial obligations before they could vote. Critics say this places an unfair burden because the state of Florida has no reliable way to tell ex-felons how much they owe. Many of the records used to sentence prisoners are lost or are inaccessible, critics say.
The Sentencing Project estimates "that nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised," despite the passage of Amendment 4. Voting rights advocates were encouraged when a federal judge ruled that the state's "pay-to-vote system" was unconstitutional. But a federal appellate court upheld the law.